With the next installment of the hit video game franchise Deus Ex releasing in early 2016, I believe it is an opportune time to talk about prosthetics and the ethics of cosmetic and functional augmentation. To understand the future of prosthetics – if they call that in the future – we must first look at the history of prostheses to better grasp their evolution.
What archeologists believe to be the world’s oldest prosthetic was an artificial toe found on an Egyptian mummy. More advanced prosthetics of full limbs made of iron and bronze were discovered in Italy dating back to the early Roman Republic of the fourth century B.C.E. Similarly, the Roman historian Pliny recounts the case of a general who had his arm amputated during Rome’s second war against Carthage (Second Punic War (218-201 B.C.E). In order for the general to return to battle, he has an iron hand made for him so that he could hold a shield.
The medieval period saw minor improvements to the already existing technology in prostheses technology. Typically only afforded to the upper classes who could purchase them, prosthetics were often peg legs or hooked hands. There were also cases where skilled craftsmen such as armorers and watchmakers collaborated to make intricate and functional artificial limbs.
In the late sixteenth century, the French Army surgeon Ambroise Paré advanced the procedures for amputation and created far more advanced prosthetics; particularly the above knee bendable leg. It was the most advanced prosthetic to date, significantly increasing the functionality and mobility of amputees.
From the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries we see the greatest advancements in the field of prosthetic theory and engineering. Knees that don’t lock, more flexibility and new building materials afforded engineers to enable a higher range of motion and mobility for their patients. The Civil War’s prosthetic arm, which functioned through the use of the users movements, has been used up until today, among the more advances and usually more expensive options.
Although many amputees opt for the less advanced mechanical prosthetics, there are a broad variety of electronic options to choose from. The UK company Steeper (http://bebionic.com/) is producing cutting edge electronic hands for amputees which feature over a dozen grip patterns, wrist mobility, and speed control – all through the muscle pressure sensors located in the device’s casing.
Likewise, the company Touch Bionics (http://www.touchbionics.com/) produces both full and partial hand prosthetics with extremely advanced gesture control and manipulation, allowing the user a greater degree of freedom of motion as well as increased strength. Similarly, Touch Bionics hands operate using sensors that detect muscle movements, typically in the forearm.
Advanced prosthetics are certainly not limited to the operation constraints of muscular manipulation in the forearms of amputees. Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) has been working on prosthetic arms that have all of the degrees of articulation and movement that a biological limb possesses, proving to be far greater than any prosthetic to date. The prosthetic functions using thought based manipulation. The user thinks of the movement that he desires to express, sensors detect the relevant nervous system stimulation, and simultaneously activate the necessary mechanical output, similar to a human arm.
One of the greatest headways in the field of prosthetics deals with our sense of touch. DARPA has developed prosthetic technology that allows users to regain the ability to ‘feel’ again; at least in a particular capacity. When an object stimulates the figure tips, the system sends a specific feedback signal to the nerves they are attached to. This gives the user the feedback response that is so crucial to the proper manipulation of normal limbs.
We have now seen a quick overview of the evolution of prosthetic technology to date. From artificial toes to hooked hands to fully capable mind-controlled prostheses; humanity has made amazing headway in giving amputees freedom of external manipulation.
Naturally, we can ask the question: as we move closer to prosthetics that mimic the biological limbs of the human body, what will happen when they exceed the capabilities and functionality of our natural limbs? What are the ethics and issues of healthy individuals sacrificing their biological parts in favor for more advanced technological ones?
The above video clip is an in-game advertisement from Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The game is set in a future where technology company Serif Industries provides cutting-edge advanced augmentations for mass purchase to the public to replace their biological parts. The advertisement shows the incentives for individuals to ‘upgrade’ their natural selves in favour of faster, stronger and more adept technology upgrades. It’s a fascinating concept, one that many transhumanists see coming to fruition.
Likewise, the game presents the ‘purists’ counter-propaganda video clip in opposition to the corporate advertisements to upgrade.
The purists cite the dangers, as well as ethical and moral qualms of upgrading your “perfectly functional” biological parts. Although the game shows becoming addicted to the anti-rejection drugs the augmentations require, this is not a realistic outcome. However, they do bring up the possibility of engineers “shutting off” or disabling individual augmentations, acting like “gods”. That seems like a far more realistic outcome.
The purpose of this article is to show that natural evolution of prosthetic technology, like all technology, will lead to ever increasing advancements. Sooner or later – I’m betting on sooner – we will see prosthetics that far exceed the capabilities of their biological counterparts.
The question is, what do we do then? What is the ethics of ‘upgrading’ our natural selves? What dangers do we face? Do any attainable benefits outweigh the potential risks? Let us discuss these important questions now.
The sequel to Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, will be releasing February 23, 2016. The upcoming instalment will continue where the previous game left off, to deal with ever more complex and significant transhumanist issues. What if there is a technological apartheid? What if purists seek to oppress the augmented? We are just going to have to wait to find out!
“Advancements in Prosthetic Technology – Health Guide Info. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Sep. 2015 Pliny, Hist. Nat. 7